Ask Dr. Forgiveness

I have forgiven him over the years and I thought I was over the anger. Yet, now that he is showing signs of coming back, I am enraged. Two questions: 1) Why would I be so enraged now after all these years, especially when I already have forgiven? and 2) What can I do about my anger? It is so intense it is scaring me. Please help me.

First of all, I congratulate you on your courage to admit your anger. You have endured much. Regarding your first question, I find that anger can intensify after the crisis is over. Your crisis was to try to live well without a father while you grew up. This undoubtedly put you under pressure some of the time in that people might have wondered where your father is, there could have been some embarrassing questions to you, and so forth. You were enduring. Now that you have “made it in the world,” after all, you are functioning well to be at a university, you are letting down from the crisis. Now your psychological defenses against the anger are lessening and you are being flooded with resentment.

First, please realize that this is not unusual and so please do not judge yourself as odd or unhealthy. At the same time, you recognize that the anger itself could make you unhealthy, could make you possibly lash out at others, and so you have to confront the anger.

May I suggest starting the forgiveness process with your father all over again. Start from square one where you acknowledge that you are angry. Acknowledge its power and even its power to hurt you or others. Then decide to forgive all over again. Then do the work of forgiveness as if you had never tried it before. You will surprise yourself with the positive results. How do I know? You have had positive results in the past.

Regarding your question 2, forgiveness will help, as I have already said and as you already know. In addition to practicing forgiveness, I recommend that you immediately begin to practice the virtue of humility, that quiet sense of deliberately avoiding arrogance or entitlement and cultivating a sense of meekness and lowliness. You are not doing this to let your father or anyone else walk all over you. Instead, you will be doing this so that you do not have the sense of now wanting to dominate your father as he comes to you perhaps in a broken and meek way. Meet him with a meekness of your own and see what happens.

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Would you say that a person has a character weakness if he cannot forgive?

Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas have told us that it takes time to develop proficiency in any virtue. In other words, we grow into becoming more fair or kind or courageous or forgiving. Thus, we all suffer from a certain “character weakness” because we are in the process of being more and more perfected in forgiving.

What does it mean to become “more perfected”? As we practice forgiveness over and over and as we grow as forgivers, we:

1) understand more deeply what forgiveness is and is not;

2) are more willing to practice it, even when we have deep pain from profound injustices;

3) move through the process more smoothly; and

4) complete the process more thoroughly in that we have less resentment and more compassion at the end of the forgiveness journey toward one person and one event.

As a final point, we all have a more difficult time forgiving certain people for certain injustices and so we should be gentle in our scrutiny of others who struggle to forgive. Someone’s struggle today does not mean that she is morally deficient. Instead, it may mean that she is growing in the virtue and is finding something difficult today in the journey. This does not mean that she will struggle tomorrow with a different person and a different event. We are all growing in our perfection of this virtue.

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I know on a rational level that all people deserve to be forgiven. Yet, I sometimes feel guilty when I forgive someone, especially when I feel that he or she does not deserve my forgiveness. It is a feeling I just cannot shake. It seems too easy to rationalize this away by saying that everyone deserves it. Down deep, I do not feel this way sometimes and the guilt bothers me. What do you suggest?

May we make an important distinction between two meanings of the word “deserve”? There are two meanings to that word, one broad meaning and one narrow meaning.

First let us focus on the broad meaning. When you use the word “deserve,” you might mean that all people are special, unique, and irreplaceable and so each of us, because of our personhood, “deserves” to experience mercy at some times in our lives.

Second, now let us turn to the narrower meaning of the word, a more fine-lined meaning of “deserve,” which centers on the actual injustice committed against you. We can reason, “Because this person betrayed (disrespected, robbed, whatever is a serious injustice) me, I think that he does not deserve my forgiveness.” In this second use of the word “deserve,” you are absolutely correct. The person, because of what he did to you, does not “deserve” your forgiveness. Do you know why? Because you are using a justice word (“deserve”) rather than a word connoting mercy.

Forgiveness is not centered in justice, but instead in mercy. Because this is the case, a person’s specific act of injustice (in this second use of the word “deserve”) negates his *right* to your forgiveness. It is not just or fair that the person has a right to your forgiveness. You are free to give that forgiveness whenever you wish and you are not giving it because the offense was slight or because he now did something extraordinary to earn it.

No one can earn our forgiveness; otherwise it is an act of justice, not mercy. He cannot earn it, therefore he cannot deserve it in this narrow sense. When you struggle with others’ deserving or not deserving your forgiveness, try to remember two things:

1) All of us deserve mercy some of the time because we are persons and all persons (because we are special, unique, and irreplaceable) deserve to have mercy. This does not mean that you have to extend that mercy every time with every person for every event if you are not ready; and

2) No one deserves mercy in the second, narrower meaning of that term. Try to see that your forgiveness is not in the realm of justice at all, where there is earning and rights and deservingness. Shift your focus and see forgiveness for what it is—a willed expression of mercy. This might help you to forge ahead with forgiveness and lessen your guilt.

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Sometimes I start the process of forgiveness, but then change my mind and I am not ready any more to forgive. Is this ok? I mean, I almost feel forced to continue the process, especially if I tell the other person that I will try to forgive him. I don???t like to feel forced into something as personal as forgiveness.

You have an assumption which I would like to gently challenge. Just because you have changed your mind and have ceased for now to forgive does not mean that you are not engaged in the forgiveness process. Sometimes that process leads us to taking much-needed breaks.

Forgiveness is hard work and so when you need a break, please do so without guilt.

Think of it this way. Suppose you are on a cross-country bike ride, which will take you many days to complete. After the first day, when you put your bicycle away and go to bed for the night, have you ceased to be on the journey? The answer, of course, is no, you have not ceased. You simply are on a particular phase of the journey that requires rest.

Think of forgiveness this way, too. It is not a sprint to the finish line. Instead, forgiveness is a process, a journey that takes time and during that time we rest. It is your choice. Resist the pressure to be constantly vigilant in your forgiving. Giving yourself permission to back off, rest, and then begin again will likely bring greater joy on the journey for you.

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Is the saying ???Forgive and forget??? true? Do we forget when we forgive?

“Forgive and forget” is such a common expression. It actually was the title to Lewis Smedes’ 1984 book. He, by the way, was not thrilled with that title. The publisher chose the title, as I understand it.

When we forgive someone for a considerable injustice, we do not develop a kind of moral amnesia, somehow blotting out the memory of our deepest wounds. No, we instead recall the deep hurts against us, lest they happen again. Instead o forgetting, I think we remember in new ways. We look back and instead of seeing an evil person who hurt us, we see a wounded person. Instead of seeing ourselves as crushed by the event, we see ourselves as having grown stronger because of it. We remember with a greater gentleness, more compassion, even more love.

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